Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

The VFX industry embraces the idea of open source.
The Wave Crests

With the operating system proving viable on the renderfarm side of production and improvements being made on the graphics workstation side, the stage was set for the earthquake that would shape the VFX industry's tidal force: the VES 2000 Linux Summit. The Visual Effects Society (VES) is the professional member organization for the VFX industry. That summer, 45 representatives from 24 effects companies met in Santa Barbara, California to talk about the need to move away from SGI IRIX and into Linux. The event, organized by the VFX Society's Technology Chair Ray Feeney and Kate Swanborge of DreamWorks, began the process of thawing the usually frozen communications between studios. Stress was placed on the need for third-party applications to be ported. At the time, only five of the more than 20 standard graphics packages used by the industry had been ported to Linux. And worse, application vendors felt that Linux was not the operating system being used by the industry.

Most studios began porting their own in house software over to Linux on their own. Meanwhile, the VES invited software vendors into workshops to discuss the need for ports of their applications. By moving in unison, the VES membership felt they could apply enough pressure on the vendors to get applications ported quickly.

Some applications were already available. Dana Batali, Pixar's director of RenderMan product development, said that they actually had the PRMan renderer available on Linux for a couple of years. SideFX's Houdini port was the first publicly announced product. The pressure applied by the society worked. By the time SIGGRAPH 2001 rolled around in August 2001, ported applications included Alias|Wavefront's complete Maya modeling and rendering toolset (see "GFX: Alias|Wavefront Maya 4", October 2001 issue of LJ), Avid's Softimage XSI image compositor, Kaydara's Filmbox content authoring package, Silicon Grail's RAYZ compositor and Nothing Real's compositor, Shake.

Anatomy of a Wave: Cost vs. Performance

The VFX industry's migration to Linux exposes some interesting interactions that open-source advocates might not have noticed previously. For example, the issue of cost isn't necessarily important when compared to Microsoft products, and it also isn't a factor when considered without the underlying commodity hardware.

Toronto-based Axyz Animation did much of the early adopter testing for SideFX's Houdini on Linux. John Coldrick, senior animator of Axyz, which has already replaced all of their workstations with Linux-based PCs, says the migration was a cost issue when coming from IRIX, but a technology issue when coming from NT:

[Linux] doesn't offer more than IRIX except it's substantially less expensive. But it is the scalability on Linux that is phenomenal. If you start with eight workstations with NT you're fine, but if you have to balloon up to 70 or 100 you run into some major problems. You do that with Linux with no problems.

Cost wasn't the most important issue for Pixar either. "Most people tend to focus on cost" when it comes to migration issues, says Pixar's Vice President of Technology, Darwin Peachey:

But cost isn't the most important thing at these price levels. The most important thing is to look at what is the best performing hardware. Right now that's Intel-based workstations, with NVIDIA or ATI equipped graphics solutions. These have now eclipsed traditional RISC workstations (such as SGIs) in terms of graphics and CPU performance. Quite apart from price/performance, if you look at absolute performance, it appears that this is the way the industry has to go.

DreamWorks Animation Head of Technology Ed Leonard says that, these days, computing costs have to be recouped with each film:

Historically we purchased a large amount of SGIs. Those were amortized over several films. You'd want to get five years out of some of that hardware due to the expense of that investment. With the Intel/Linux strategy today, we're moving toward what we refer to as disposable computing. Film productions are generally two years long, and during that time the technology takes several steps ahead. We normally anticipate to recoup a large portion of our hardware costs with every production. So with each new movie, we go out and purchase a new renderfarm.

But it was SideFX's Salvini who put it most bluntly: "It's one thing to have your product run on Linux, but so what if you save $200 on the OS and you need a $5,000 graphics card?"

The use of commodity components is allowing the industry to remove their dependency on SGI, a company with an expensive, specialized hardware and a questionable future. And, Peachey adds, there are only two ways to go with the Intel solution: Microsoft NT or Linux. Feeney says NT turned out to be both a technical problem as well as a political one.



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Linux Graphics Group meets Tuesday, March 5, 2002

RobinRowe's picture

For anyone in the Berkeley, California, vicinity who may be interested, the Linux Graphics Group meets Tuesday. Informal discussion of Film Gimp, Shake, RAYZ, Maya, etc. Info at


Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

A little over-dramatic. The industry change to Linux isnt nearly as kinetic as people want to make it sound. Sure - Maya, Shake, XSI, Houdini, etc. work in Linux -but where are the plugins? Where is all the support software we use on a daily basis, namely the Adobe software and countless others.

This article implies that we as an industry had just a slight brush with NT but decided we hated it and moved on. As though everyone started on Irix!

There are NUMEROUS visual effects houses in 'Hollywood' (the industry worldwide) who use NT and Windows 2000 religiously for visual effects because it works, the software is there now, and it's still a hell of alot cheaper than SGI.

Sure - I would prefer Linux, but to get the work done NOW we have to stick to alot of cross-platforming. The studio where I am a technical director uses 50 or so Macs, 20 NT machines for 3D, all Linux for the renderfarm, and all irix for servers / high end compositing (Inferno). This article reminds me of the expose' style article making it sound like a sweeping change. Watching Linux move into the industry from the front lines has been about as much fun as watching grass grow, I can attest.

Also - one correction - this article constantly refers to the "Softimage XSI Compositing Package"


Softimage is 3D software - as old as Alias. XSI 2.0 has integrated some compositing facilities- but it is by no means a compositing package. This is well known by anyone who actually works with this stuff. This simple error makes me worry about the credibility of the article. And did Ray Feeney mention that his company's (Silicon Grail) compositing software - RAYZ has barely ever worked? It's great that someone is developing for Linux natively now and I am happy to hear it, but it has a long way to go. Rayz is a buggy piece of crap 2 versions into it.

In truth the industry has changed very little over the last several years. The big players like Dreamworks, ILM, Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, etc. have the privelege of using vast amounts of proprietary software all written in some flavor of UNIX. If Rhythm and Hues wants to move their animation package to Linux, they just tell the software development department to do so. It makes perfect sense for all of them to switch over - but for the MAJORITY of the industry, that is the rest of us who are not doing Star Wars Episode 2 and the next Pixar film, things are not moving so quickly - because we rely on third party vendors.

Also- did Pixar mention that they render on Sun with Solaris? and that they always have and continue to? They dont even use Linux on the back end - hard to use them as an example of the 'sweeping change'.

Check your sources next time and try to avoid being sensational. Dont hold your breath for things to change overnight.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Agree. Mac and NT are far more better as Workstation in front-end. Linux is good for renderfarm.

If Ford will use Linux on its Desktop it is only the mistake of the CEO. On desktop Linux is five years behind the Windows and Mac.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

And 15 years behind Irix in the GUI/Graphics integration department.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

This is just a superb article. Informationally intense, entirely relevant and, to top it off, great news on Linux. Cudos, Michael.

Part of this saddens me...

Anonymous's picture

SGI has supported Linux a lot and they have some of the best hardware out there, it's too bad that SGI should suffer as Linux makes a win.

Re: Part of this saddens me...

RobinRowe's picture

SGI likes Linux.

Linux runs on everything. Linux on SGI means that customers don't have to make an either/or decision in purchasing hardware. The training/support barrier to entry is gone. New markets dominated by Sun in which SGI couldn't compete (due to IRIX being considered a specialty OS) are now open.

SGI briefly promoted and sold Windows, before switching to Linux. Although Linux does ease the migration to other platforms, SGI is better off with Linux than the alternative of everyone going to a Windows. At least Linux runs on their hardware.

Linux leaves the door open for SGI to make a comeback in workstations if they would want to try, and supports their present strategy of focusing on high-end servers in mixed environments.

You can read what SGI says about Linux in my Linux Journal article, "GFX: Mainstream Linux."


Re: Part of this saddens me...

ghostdancer's picture

How does SGI earn $$?

AFAIK, is their Hardware+Software that brings in the cash. With Linux, people will not buy new hardware from them. We can just take much *cheaper* X86 system.

This leave with Software portion (OS). Since Linux can install into old/existing SGI machine, why should people upgrade their OS? This also result existing customer not buying new hardware from them (since they can continue to use existing hardware).

In the end, what is left for SGI?

Is my personal opinion that we won't see SGI in the near future. They most likely will become another SCO, bought over by someone.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Burlington Coat Factory is the deployer of Linux.

Burlington Northern was a railroad company now owned by Union Pacific.

Burlington Industries is (was) a textile manufacturer.

I believe they all at one time stated they had no relationship to each other.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Burlington Northern merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the combination is known as the BNSF. It is in fact one of the few competitors of the Union Pacific.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Well the VFX industry needs to consider what will happen to their nice new platform (linux) if legislation like the SSSCA is passed. For all practical purposes corporate Hollywood is attempting to exterminate open computing platforms, and open source software developement.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Please snail mail your Congressman and Senators today. Microsoft has in the last year, patented core technologies required by the SSSCA. If the SSSCA passes it would require that all bootable devices pay a Microsoft tax.

Re: Industry of Change: Bite the hand that feeds you

Anonymous's picture

The big media companies don't seem to realize that the SSSCA, and its ilk, will cost more in lost sales than these "laws" will bring in by reducing "unauthorized" duplication. Nobody with an IQ above room temperature will pay to be Disney's *****: these laws will so alienate the consumer that there will be no market for the products of these large "media" companies. Remember DivX?

The big computer companies had better act NOW to prevent the idiocy of the SSSCA by buying their own politicians and fighting Diznee. What the computer executives don't seem to grasp is that the SSSCA will destroy the computer industry. It is basic economics: if the utility of a product is reduced, consumers will be far less willing to purchase it. If there is no utility to be garnered from purchasing the product, nobody will buy it. Don't let Disney destroy the technology sector of the American economy by legislating the utility out of our products, don't let Disney put you out of business, don't let Disney regulate your right to innovate.

Get out the Mouse poison.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Well, the VFX industry doesn't have anything to do with the SSSCA, they work for the movie industry, like contractor, work for hire, they are not part of the big media corps that push things like the SSSCA.

There is also something to watch out for in this article. Apple just bought Nothing Real about a couple weeks ago. So the future of Shake on Linux is nebulous, seems that Trmor was killed. Also ILM is indeed moving to Linux, not just considering it. They started the move last year, maybe replacing at least one third of the workstations by now and also some of their big origins with a P4 and Alpha solution.

The Unofficial Industrial Light + Magic website

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

SSSCA would mean the end of American nuclear weapons development as we know it. All the big iron at Los Alamos and most of the T division guys I know run Linux and rely on it's external development. So the MPAA really is a bunch of commie, terrorist dupes.

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